New Internationalist

Belarus elections

Issue 438

Belarus Elections: 19 December

AGENDA

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

The country nicknamed ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ is playing elections again. It seems certain that Alexandr Lukashenka, known as Batka (‘Daddy’), will add another four years to the 16 he’s already had in power.

This time around, an unprecedented number of opposition candidates –18 – are running, and that is precisely the problem: they are too many. The opposition is more divided than ever; internal fights have weakened it to a point where it is practically toothless. The public is tired of the fights and disillusioned – Daddy has no serious rival.

Political gossip circulates that, disappointed with the opposition’s lack of bite, donors in the West have cut off the money streams. Once-high hopes for opposition have vanished.

So who is dictator Lukashenka afraid of? Probably no-one. He’s done incredibly well in suppressing political opposition and controlling freedom of speech. Pressure on the few independent media outlets is enormous, and there’s a general feeling that revolution just isn’t going to happen.

Ergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images
Comedy or tragedy? International observers called the 2006 election, at which this student was casting her vote, a farce. Ergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images

Four years ago, international observers called the presidential election, in which Lukashenka officially got 82 per cent of the vote, ‘farce with elements of both comedy and tragedy’. His closest opponent, opposition leader Alexandr Milinkevich, got only six per cent. He was later arrested during a rally protesting against the results, and held for two weeks.

Around 10,000 people gathered in Minsk’s central square in the freezing cold, shouting ‘Shame!’ and demanding a fair election. But were they to take to the streets again, it is uncertain that the opposition would be able to deliver.

In September, Milinkevich announced he wouldn’t run this time, citing as his reason the failed electoral reform his party Za Svabodu (For Freedom) had been pushing for. His farewell to the presidential bid had a negative impact on the opposition’s image, but it opened the way for others. Unfortunately, they don’t have much to offer.

Perhaps the real political opposition in Belarus is its tiny independent media, currently under extra pressure from the authorities to ‘behave’. Threats, arrests, office searches and troubled newspaper distribution are the regime’s well-known methods against free reporting. The suspicious death of Oleg Babenin, founder of the popular opposition news site Charter 97, raised fears that Daddy is not joking.

The country’s economic situation is miserable – a fact Belarusians will be well aware of as they cast their vote. It might also be the reason why so many of them are reluctant to get rid of Daddy – inevitable changes could be painful. Given that the opposition has no decent alternatives to Belarus’ soviet-style planned economy, it is clear that even if freedom is good, a full stomach is more important.

Where there is Belarus, there’s always Russia. But this time the two aren’t engaged in a mutual love affair: Russia’s President Medvedev accused Lukashenka of ‘hysterical’ anti-Russian rhetoric, after Daddy claimed Russia has been interfering with the election by financing some of the candidates. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy, and Big Brother is apparently running out of patience. With almost no suitable partners in sight, Belarus might as well remain single, which could be good news for the opposition – but not this time.

Giedre Steikunaite

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